Last week, the news surfaced that Josh Duggar, the oldest son of the TLC reality-show Duggar family, molested several girls younger than him between March 2002 and March 2003. The Duggar family, according to the tabloid In Touch, elected to handle the crimes in-house for several months, by sending Josh to work manual labor for a summer with a family friend, and asking him to have a conversation with a state trooper, also a family friend. This same trooper was later convicted of child pornography and is currently in prison after re-offending. No official investigation was opened until December 2006, after the statute of limitations in Arkansas had passed.
This is the timeline of events as we know them. The story exploded onto everyone’s feeds late Thursday, resulting in TLC pulling the show on Friday. Many feminist writers are wondering whether the network proceeded with the television series in 2008, with the full knowledge of Duggar’s crimes, or if they simply accepted a sanitized narrative from the family. These are all good questions, and I’m sure we’ll get the answers to them in due time.
But it is doubly important that we carefully examine the sociopolitical and theological environment that allowed such abuses—and their apparent cover-up—in the first place. And we must think about the impact that this hyper-conservative Christian theology can have on survivors of this kind of abuse.
The Duggars are part of a theological movement called “Quiverfull,” a deeply conservative sector of Protestant theology whose most salient characteristic is a disregard for birth control—including the rhythm method. Such families also tend to be politically conservative, believing white Christianity in America to be under threat. Producing godly Christian children to carry on the gospel, both politically and socially, is vital to the continuation of the faith: You must have lots of “arrows”—children—in your “quiver.” More children means more demographic power, according to this philosophy, and the ability to control societal and governmental outcomes by maintaining hold of majority power.
And typically attendant with this theology is a whole host of conservatively minded elements. Women are to stay in the home; men are to be breadwinners. Women are to be conservatively and modestly dressed, and sexual purity is prized above all things when entering into a marriage contract. Generally, men and women marry young and start producing children quickly.
On the blog No Longer Quivering, women who grew up in Quiverfull families tell their stories of escaping the movement and discuss the strict patriarchy that underlays the movement. One contributor, Sarah Henderson, writes that power and status are built into the structure of the family. “In patriarchal families, children are often authority-tiered in birth order, although the preference in the ranking is sometimes given to boys,” she writes.
As a woman named Libby Anne writes of her experience within the Quiverfull movement:
My parents believed in more than just a wife’s submission to her husband. They also believed that children are under their father’s authority. … For boys, this lasted until age eighteen. … For girls, this lasted until marriage. … This meant that while my brothers would be out from under my father’s authority when they turned eighteen, I would not. My parents also believed that if my father died, I would be under the authority of my nearest male relative, which in practice meant my younger brother.
The theology is not shy about making sure that men are the heads of households and women are subservient. Frequently, families are so large that older female siblings are enlisted in helping to care for the younger, allowing the mother to focus on newborns. Such a practice not only places minors in charge of each other; it frequently places the work of educating the family members in the hands of people who are still learning things themselves. This combination of factors creates a vortex of little to no education and a lack of skills transferrable to the outside world. In other words, the theological sect perpetuates itself by keeping women dependent upon the family structure until they are married off into a family approved by their patriarch—which is usually another family within their denomination. Women are functionally without power or voice within this movement; leaving it often means leaving behind every social structure you have ever known.
Additionally, the conservative values of modesty and purity create an environment where talking about sex is verboten. As those formerly involved in the movement write, women cover themselves to prevent lust on the part of men, and women are trained from an early age to prioritize the needs and wants of the men around them—including their siblings. A woman who is sexually impure outside of marriage, no matter how it happened, is not marriage material.
The families within this tradition form a close-knit network of groups, depending on each other for education, monetary support, and marriage. The groups are at once paranoid about outsiders while also prizing conversion to their very particular way of life. This desire for evangelism of others explains why the Duggars saw getting a TV show as a good move in the first place.
These elements combine to produce a conservative Christian culture in which victims can be silenced and sexual abuse may be excused as part of an abuser’s redemption story. The prioritization of forgiveness means that having a neat, clean story of Jesus’ power is often more important than actually stopping harm from being done.
So Josh Duggar’s victims likely had a number of things working against them. In addition to the typical problems facing victims of childhood sexual abuse, these young girls existed (and continue to exist) in an environment that prioritizes the redemption of men over the pain of the women they hurt. Coming forward for any one of the victims meant going against a very powerful patriarch in their sect, and it meant an “admission” of sexual impurity on their part.
In the Duggars’ narrative of events, Josh admitted his crimes to his now-wife, Anna, during their courtship, and Anna forgave him. The police report from 2006 also notes that the young victims of the Duggars had been spoken to about the events and that they all had “chosen” to forgive Josh for his transgression. But in a world as theologically, socially, and politically constrained as the Duggars’, is it really possible for these girls—some younger than ten years old—to really understand a concept as weighty as forgiving the man who abused you?
Any forgiveness in such a situation is a Band-Aid over a bullet wound at best. These women may genuinely feel that the abuse they experienced has no real impact on their lives now. But it is undeniable that the environment in which they were raised and the heavily moralistic and gendered purity culture in which they exist contributed both to their abuse and to the subsequent cover-up and minimization of such acts.
This problem of sexual abuse in conservative Christian environments is not just a Duggar problem. This is not an anomaly. This kind of cover-up, this kind of abuse and minimization is all too common for such theologies. It’s just that not every story will involve a national television star.